The day before Buddy Valastro’s mother, Mary, died at age 69 after an exhausting battle with ALS, she sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” in her New Jersey apartment, surrounded by Buddy, his four sisters and her growing list of grandchildren.
The Cake Boss star had no idea it would be the last time he’d see his mother alive; now he says it’s a moment he’ll always cherish. “I got to sit by her and say, ‘Ma, I owe everything to you. I wouldn’t be who I am without you. You’re my No. 1 girl,’ ” he tells PEOPLE in the latest issue on newsstands Friday. “I got to say my peace. I got to say goodbye to her.”
Her spunky personality and tendency to sing wherever she went—including over the loudspeaker at the chef’s headquarters in Jersey City, N.J. for all the bakers to hear—is exactly how Valastro wants to remember her. “She was the most energetic, lively, bubbly person I ever met in my life. She was like a firecracker on steroids,” he says, laughing.
After the funeral following her June 22 death from the neurodegenerative disease that claimed nearly all of her motor skills, Valastro’s production company put together a slideshow with all of their favorite clips of Mary from her appearances on Cake Boss and Kitchen Boss.
“That’s the beauty of television—we have all that footage of seeing Momma the way you want,” he says. “We just all watched it and we cried; it was an amazing tribute to her. We wanted to give her a really good goodbye.”
For the upcoming season of the TLC series, Valastro says they didn’t film the funeral but did record some of the reception to give fans closure with his beloved reality star mom. “I feel like that’s what she would’ve wanted,” says Valastro, who also lost his father to cancer when he was 17. “We want to keep her memory alive. The way I keep my father’s memory alive, I’m going to keep my mother’s alive.”
For more on Buddy Valastro and his mother’s battle with ALS, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.